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JUNE 2016


A Dubious Exceptionalism

Why America Misunderstands the

World: National Experience and Roots

of Misperception

Paul R. Pillar, Columbia University

Press, 2016, $29.95/hardcover, $28.99/

eBook, 224 pages.

Reviewed By Gordon S. Brown

This book should be required reading

for all presidential candidates. In it,

academic and former intelligence offi-

cial Paul Pillar explores the numerous

reasons why Americans’ perspectives

about the world and foreign policy have

developed very differently from those of

other nations.

More importantly, he has then

shown how our very American view of

the world, and our role in it, has led us

to a wide range of analytical and tactical

misperceptions about other nations’

motivations and behav-

ior—and consequent

misperceptions and

misguided conventional

wisdom about what our

own policy responses

should be. The list is

appallingly broad.

To hyper-condense

Pillar’s careful analysis,

his basic argument is that

our continental security;

our largely successful eco-

nomic and social history;

our democratic, optimistic and religious

ethos; and our success in the occasional

wars that we have fought have com-

bined to give Americans a very particu-

lar and inaccurate view of the world.

We also ignore, he posits, the geo-

political insecurity of other nations,

their different social and ethnic ten-

sions, their histories of conflict and

their greater understanding of the

necessity for give and take in diplomatic

competition. The result has been a very

particular American world view: one

that is insular, moralistic, righteous and

given to seeing international competi-

tion as a series of win-lose struggles in

which we fight foreign evils.

In short, we don’t get it, and don’t

understand why our actions sometimes


Many of the points and

illustrations made by Pillar

will not be unfamiliar to the

foreign policy aficionados

or wonks likely to read this

journal. A seasoned and

respected foreign affairs

analyst, Pillar has skewered

the conventional wisdom

on a host of issues where

our misperceptions of the

threat, the motivations of

others or even of our own

national interest have led

to flawed policies.

His own regional experience and

frustration show through; there are

few Asian examples, for example, but a

plethora of critiques about our mis-

understandings about Middle Eastern

sociopolitical realities and our conse-

quent errors.

Foreign policy practitioners who

have seen their carefully analyzed draft

memoranda bled down to a set of over-

simplified and “foreigner-free” policy

options will surely sympathize with

Pillar’s presentation, but find no solace

in his conclusion that the analysts are

almost invariably ignored anyway when

the policy decisions are made.

It would be nice to think that, if our

presidential candidates actually were

to read this book, it could in some way

change the attitudes and perceptions

about foreign affairs that we have been

hearing for the past months.

Gordon S. Brown retired in 1996 after a 35-

year career in the Foreign Service, during

which he specialized in Middle East and

economic issues. His last postings were as

deputy chief of mission in Tunis, POLAD to

CENTCOM during the First Gulf War and

ambassador to Mauritania. Since retire-

ment, he has turned to writing, mainly

19th-century history, and has published six

books. He is a member of the FSJ Editorial


Melting Pot of Empires

and Cultures: A Unique


Catholic Kosovo

Marilyn Kott, Lulu Press Inc., 2016,

$38.49/paperback, $5.99/eBook, 162

pages. Also available at Barnesandno-, and iTunes.

Reviewed By Douglas E. Morris

The Balkans is an amazing region that

has been almost completely overlooked

by tourism. Nowhere is this more

evident than in Kosovo, a landlocked

nation seemingly trapped in time,

surrounded by Montenegro, Serbia,

Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria.

Kosovo’s Ottoman past is well

known, but less apparent are the deep


Pillar has skewered the

conventional wisdom on

a host of issues where our

misperceptions of the threat,

the motivations of others

or even of our own national

interest have led to flawed